TIMBUKTU, Mali/PARIS Mali's president offered talks to Tuareg rebels on Thursday in a bid for national reconciliation after a French-led offensive drove their Islamist former allies into desert and mountain hideaways in the country's vast north.
France's three-week ground and air campaign has dislodged al Qaeda-linked fighters from northern Mali's major towns, ending the first phase of an operation designed to prevent Islamists using the region as a launchpad for attacks on neighbouring West African countries and Europe.
France is now due to gradually transfer the military mission to a U.N.-mandated African force of some 8,000 soldiers, tasked with securing northern towns and pursuing militants into their mountain redoubts near the Algerian border.
French air strikes have destroyed the Islamists' training camps and logistics bases but Paris says a long-term solution hinges on finding a political settlement between Mali's restive northern Tuareg community and the distant capital Bamako.
Under pressure from Paris, Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traore said he was ready to open talks with the Tuareg rebel MNLA provided it honoured a pledge to drop its claims of independence for northern Mali.
The MNLA seized control of north Mali in April before its revolt was hijacked by the better armed and financed Islamists.
"Today, the only group that we could think of negotiating with is certainly the MNLA. But, of course, on condition that the MNLA drops any pretence to a territorial claim," Traore told French radio RFI, ruling out talks with any Islamist groups.
MNLA reoccupied its former northern stronghold of Kidal on Monday after al Qaeda-linked fighters fled French air strikes. It has offered to battle the Islamists in the nearby desert and Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, amid fears that the Malian army would carry out reprisals against Tuaregs in recaptured towns.
Any dialogue could anger Mali's powerful and meddling military, which toppled the civilian government last year in frustration at its handling of the Tuareg uprising and is still smarting from the massacre of some 80 soldiers by Islamists at the northern town of Alguelhoc.
"We agree to negotiate but not with people who have committed crimes," said one senior Malian military source.
Many ordinary Malians, particularly in the country's south, also blame the MNLA for the current crisis. Traore, installed in office after the March military coup, has called national elections for July 31 to complete a political transition.
France, which seized Kidal's airport on Tuesday, has been careful to maintain good relations with Tuareg chieftains. Its forces have not entered the town of Kidal but carried out airstrikes on Islamist training camps and logistics depots to the north at Aguelhoc and to the south at Almoustarat.
TIMBUKTU'S ANCIENT RELICS
On the quiet, dusty streets of Timbuktu, liberated by French forces at the weekend, life began to return to normal. The ancient caravan town has been living under strict sharia law imposed by Islamist militants, including a ban on music.
In acts reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Islamists had bulldozed mausoleums and burned some ancient manuscripts. On Thursday, a French armoured vehicle stood guard outside the Sankore mosque - a UNESCO world heritage site - and residents grateful for Paris' intervention hung a tricolour flag from a telephone pole.
Some residents had looted shops and houses belonging to Tuaregs and Arabs, ethnic groups associated with the Islamist rebels, raising fears of ethnic reprisals. Rights groups have already accused Malian soldiers of executing several Tuaregs and Arabs in the central Malian town of Sevare.
Military analysts suggest the conflict could now be headed for a prolonged, low-level insurgency, with small groups of Islamist fighters carrying out sporadic attacks.
Four Malian soldiers were killed and five injured when their patrol vehicle hit a mine on the road between Gao and the nearby town of Gossi, Malian military sources said.
A large group of Islamist fighters led by feared head of the Islamist police in Gao, Aliou Toure, was camped in the region of Bourem, to the north of the town, military sources said. The army was deploying reinforcements there.
An attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria earlier this month by Islamist fighters opposing the French intervention in Mali led to the deaths of 37 foreign hostages and raised fears of similar reprisals across North and West Africa.
Amid concerns over the funding, equipment and leadership of the African force, Paris renewed a push for the U.N. Security Council to approve a peacekeeping force.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had resisted U.N. peacekeepers becoming embroiled in an offensive combat mission but the recapture of the main Malian towns has made a deployment less risky. The Security Council is due to discuss the possibility soon, U.N. diplomats said on Wednesday.
"This development is extremely positive and I want this initiative to be carried through," French Jean-Yves Le Drian told France Inter radio.
(Additional reporting Bate Felix in Dakar, John Irish in Paris, Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako, and Louis Charbonneau; Writing by Daniel Flynn, editing by Rosalind Russell)